OCEAN CITY — Despite a scaled-back proposal that dropped one Ocean City community from consideration, a decision on the installation of cell phone towers in certain residential areas of the resort was again tabled.
In December, representatives of the private-sector company Crown Castle announced a proposal to install small cell towers in certain north-end residential neighborhoods in the interest of improving wireless data service. As far back as 2015, Crown Castle announced a proposal to install as many as 90 Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS), or small cell phone towers, at locations throughout Ocean City including many of the resort’s residential areas.
The small towers, often mounted on existing light poles and other utilities, are needed to expand bandwidth and improve Internet accessibility in the densely populated resort, particularly in the summer months.
Crown Castle’s proposal pitched in December included Little Salisbury, Caine Keys, Caine Keys II, Caine Woods, Montego Bay and Heron Harbor, for example. At that time, the council voted down the proposal, largely because of objections from the Montego Bay community, but left the door open for the company to return with a proposal for other residential communities identified for service.
During Tuesday’s work session, Crown Castle officials pitched a scaled-back proposal for nine small cell towers excluding Montego Bay. Couched against the backdrop of this Sunday’s Super Bowl, Crown Castle Government Relations Specialist Trey Spear said the demand for wireless data in Ocean City during the peak summer months dwarfs the needs of a host city for the NFL’s championship game, necessitating the need for more and more small cell sites.
“Just like Super Bowl sites have to prepare for the inundation of the host city, you have to prepare for the inundation of your wireless service in the height of summer,” he said. “The demand on your wireless service in July is the equivalent of 17 Super Bowls.”
Spear said the various wireless service providers bring in what are called cells on wheels, or cows, during the summer season to meet the usage demand, particularly in the downtown areas. As the name implies, the cows are temporary solutions to increased wireless demand and are removed during the off-season.
By adding more small cell towers throughout the resort, the demand would be met and the need for Cows would slowly be diminished. Council Secretary Mary Knight questioned if the Cows meet the seasonal demand, were more and more small cell towers needed throughout the resort.
“If the Cows work and we only need them in the summer months, why wouldn’t that be a good solution,” she said. “Maybe we wouldn’t need these towers all over the residential areas.”
Crown Castle engineer J.D. McCloskey said the cows do work, but the speed and quality of service are weaker than the small cell towers.
“One thing to realize, as we become more dependent on data, you get better quality of service with the small cell towers,” he said. “The whole town is basically sharing one pipeline for data. The user experience is significantly degraded during the summer months.”
Installing more small cell towers in residential areas would improve service and reduce the strain on demand. Councilman Dennis Dare said the temporary fixes, or cows, would not meet the growing demand and advocated for the installation of more small cell towers with certain design standards minimizing the impact on the neighborhoods.
“Where wireless communication is going, the sky’s the limit,” he said. “It’s expanding greatly and the growth is tremendous. Temporary things like cows won’t keep up. The ones that were in Ocean City might be in Atlanta right now for the Super Bowl.”
Councilman Matt James questioned why the new cell towers were needed in residential areas where many year-round residents live and have their own wireless service.
“In the R-1 neighborhoods, a lot of people have wifi service in their homes,” he said. “Would this improve the quality of their service? They’re probably not even using the data provided by the small cell towers.”
Spear said because of the unique nature of the resort town, many visitors had their own service in their primary residences elsewhere, but relied on wireless service while in Ocean City.
“We talk to a lot of residents,” he said. “They might have a home in Pennsylvania and a home in Ocean City and they don’t want to pay double utility bills. They are using their wifi at home and using data from small cell towers when they’re on vacation.”
Nonetheless, the skeptical James called into question Crown Castle’s motivation for the installation of more and more tower sites in residential areas.
“I think it’s pretty obvious why Crown Castle is here asking for more towers,” he said. “They don’t make any money with the cows.”
The small cell towers are generally attached to existing light poles and other utilities, typically with an attachment on the top of a pole and the guts of the operation mounted on the middle of the pole or at its base. By and large, they blend into the residential landscapes, and Crown Castle works closely with City Engineer Terry McGean and staff to choose the best and least objectionable locations. Nonetheless, Councilman Tony DeLuca said he could not support the proposal because of the potential impacts on residents in those neighborhoods.
“The more I think about this, they’re called small cell towers, but they really aren’t that small when they’re in your front yard,” he said. “It could affect property values. I’ll be a no vote on this.”
Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gave private sector companies such as Crown Castle more leeway in installing small cell towers in residential areas where they have historically been prohibited. For that reason, Dare said the town could regulate where the towers are sited in the public right-of-way and possibly aesthetic issues, but could not outright forbid their installation.
“The FCC has said this is small cell tower installation and we don’t have a lot of say in some of these things,” he said. “They are a public utility and, therefore, have a right to do some of these things without our approval. We can regulate what is in our right-of-way, but we can’t regulate all of this.”
To that end, Dare suggested working closely with Crown Castle on the number of towers, the locations and the designs or face an alternative with multiple companies coming into the resort with similar plans.
“I think we work with Crown Castle on this and maybe we don’t have Acme Antenna Company coming in,” he said. “We might end up with more of these then we want in town in the end because that’s permissible.”
Mayor Rick Meehan’s concerns were largely aesthetic after looking at some of the proposed designs.
“The boxes mounted at that height would be more obtrusive then the boxes mounted at the base,” he said. “They’re all going to be objectionable to somebody. I’d just like to know what we’re approving if we go that way.”
James said the pending FCC lawsuit alone was reason enough to table the issue.
“I think we should table this and get some advice from our legal counsel,” he said.
Councilman John Gehrig agreed with tabling the issue largely on the issue raised by Meehan.
“I agree for different reasons,” he said. “I agree with the mayor that we need firm information on the locations and designs.”
James said he still wasn’t sure why the temporary mobile towers, or cows, wouldn’t serve the same purpose in meeting wireless demand during the height of the summer season.
“We had two temporary locations we’re trying to replace with nine permanent towers,” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense to me. Two very ugly temporary cows that aren’t here are better than nine permanent towers that are only slightly more aesthetically pleasing.”
Council President Lloyd Martin said he understood both sides.
“I look at the growth over the last 10 years and that’s only going to continue,” he said. “We need to be ready for that. I also want to see what we’re actually approving and be able to present that to the public.”
Councilman Mark Paddack said when Crown Castle pitched the idea a few weeks earlier, the discussion was tabled because there were engineering questions that couldn’t be answered by the contractor. Paddack said some of the concerns had been addressed, and while he could support tabling the issue again to explore some of the design features, he basically admonished his colleagues for continuing to drag their feet on the approval.
“I’m going to vote to table the issue for further discussion, but I think it is being politically motivated to kick the can further down the road from what is inevitably going to happen,” he said. “We’re micromanaging in an area I don’t think we should be in. We need to stop grandstanding and kicking this can down the road.”
In the end, the council voted 6-1 with Dare opposed to table the discussion and have Crown Castle come back with firm locations and designs for the requested nine towers.